As Lipscomb’s NAIA juggernaut hit its peak with the 1986 National Championship, Belmont had unknowingly laid the foundation for the next 30-plus years of their program with the hiring of Rick Byrd, fresh off of a postseason elimination at Lincoln Memorial by way of Lipscomb.
“He came in young and energetic with a game plan on how we could get better young,” said Belmont Hall of Famer, current athletic director, and Byrd’s first recruit, Scott Corley. “He was very competitive, but he did things in a very humble way.”
The season after the national title, Lipscomb brought in a gangly local kid named Philip Hutcheson, who was what locals refer to as a “Lipscomb Lifer” since he went to David Lipscomb High School before moving onto the university which resides on the same campus. He would became the all-time leading scorer in college basketball history before he finished his time in the Purple and Gold.
Hutcheson, Lipscomb’s current athletic director, became the third four-time All-American in NAIA history, making the third team in his first season, the second team in 1987-88, and the first team in in 1988-89 and 1989-90. The prolific big man finished his career with 4,106 points and scored in double-figures in all 155 contests he competed in.
In 1990 he was named the NAIA Player of the Year, the first time a Bison had ever won the award, but a season after a Bruin claimed the honor for the first time.
The Bruins added their own local superstar to the mix prior to the 1987-88 season, as Joe Behling became Belmont’s first-ever All-American.
He made the NAIA All-American First Team in 1988, 1989, and 1990, winning the NAIA Player of the Year award in 1989.
That season, Behling averaged 31.5 points per game and scored 1,071 points total. Belmont found itself two wins away from the program’s first-ever NAIA National Tournament appearance with a familiar foe standing in their way. Lipscomb was the No. 1-ranked team in the nation at the time, with a 38-1 record heading into the matchup.
On March 4, 1989, Behling scored a program-record 58 points to lead Belmont in an upset victory at Lipscomb’s raucous McQuiddy Gym, leaving the Bruins one win away a NAIA berth. The two teams met four times that season, with the Bisons winning each of the first three matches.
“Those games were so frenetic,” Behling said. “The speed of the game was unbelievable.”
Meanwhile, the Bisons were eliminated from postseason contention as there were no at-large bids for the NAIA Tournament at that time – the NAIA changed that rule the next season.
“Lipscomb was the gold standard at the time,” Corley said. “To go over to their place and play in an obviously hostile environment against a great team and to walk out of that game with a win was very satisfying.”
The Bruins followed up the win with another victory over a NAIA powerhouse, Byrd’s former school Lincoln Memorial, who he led to three NAIA Tournament appearances in his three seasons with the program. They dispatched of LMU at home to advance to their first ever NAIA Tournament. Belmont lost in the first round to Hastings 89-76, but it was just the beginning of the program’s postseason success.
“That tournament was run very special,” Corley said. “It’s always special when you’re the first to do something. It’s a legacy I know I’m proud of and all my teammates are proud of.”